Nine league games into Lee Johnson’s Sunderland managerial career and the team are (kinda) spluttering into some kind of form with three wins out of the last four league games.
With February nearly upon us, if we are to have any kind of hope of securing one of the automatic promotion spots by the season’s end, then the team needs to hit a run of form that goes win-win-win-win-win. It’s what all the top teams in any league do at this point in a season - would you back this Sunderland team to do that?
There are aspects of our game which have visibly improved, and you can see what Lee Johnson is trying to bring to the team. Playing the ball on the deck and building from the back much more than his predecessor is commendable, although in the two last games we have given the ball away too much with sloppy passing when trying to protect a narrow lead.
I too was excited by what I saw in the opening half hour against Shrewsbury, and for the first time in over a year while watching Sunderland it had me constantly on the edge of my seat. The players were even making an attempt at one touch passing against Wimbledon - again commendable in League One - though it remains to be seen if this can be developed over the rest of the season.
It was interesting to hear the comments of our head coach after the Ipswich game, in which he spoke of a squad that had a solid base in our defence but needed some flair and pace to stretch opposing teams up front, an assessment that many fans wouldn’t disagree with.
Some would like to see a few changes, with a pacey, powerful goalscorer to lead the line top of the list. If we find one to come and play for us in League One, then great. Past experience shows that players of that kind are a premium commodity at the end of the January transfer window.
Charlie Wyke before this season started had a strike rate for Sunderland of something around one goal in six games. This season, he has improved this even under Phil Parkinson who still insisted on banging the ball up to him as a target man, something that even his harshest critics have come to accept that he is not. You cannot really argue with a return of twelve goals in eighteen starts in the league and since Lee Johnson arrived, he has been prolific as the new coach has looked to play to his strengths.
His goals have been the deciding factor in our last three wins. The problem with Wyke, is that when he does not score, then he looks completely anonymous in a game and is perceived to have had a stinker, as in the games against Plymouth and Hull.
However, if we look back two years, then our main goal threat in Josh Maja was exactly the same in that respect. You wouldn’t even notice he was taking part in a game, then would pop up with a goal.
If we accept that Charlie Wyke has made the job of goal-getter for the team his own, the problem is not so much to find a pacey striker to score goals, but instead who to play alongside him. Sunderland are not far off from being a team that can push for the automatic promotion places, and instead of recruiting two or three players I would suggest we just need one to bring the improvement needed.
My reasoning is this. Two players who can improve the present team are already in our ranks. Josh Scowen admittedly brings an energy to our midfield, but has not really impressed in any game this season. Luke O’Nien would bring the same energy, would likely bring more end product, make the same runs into the box to get on the end of chances like Scowen, and we KNOW would put one or two of them away - unlike Scowen.
Denver Hume is yet to return from injury but would be an immediate upgrade on McFadzean at left back. Hands down, no argument, he just would be.
A third position is where in my opinion is where we do need to recruit - up front in Aiden O’Brien’s role. I don’t think O’Brien has done that bad a job in recent games, I just feel that if we could recruit a pacey creative forward to play there, it would give the team a different dynamic. Someone who could get behind the opposition defence and lay on chances for Wyke and the rest of the team.
The best example of this I can give in the last twenty years, would be a player that was also incidentally universally loathed by opposition fans where ever he played and was also a mag at one point - Craig Bellamy. If you can imagine of someone of his ilk in O’Brien’’s role and what that would offer to the team, such as when we were looking for an outlet that wasn’t there in the second half against Ipswich and Shrewsbury.
As an afterthought how about throwing this one out there - Joel Asoro? He is back at Swansea, doing nothing, has pace to burn and was one our few players to impress when we were relegated from the Championship. He could at least be available on loan, knows the club throughout, and we know what he can do.
Reports are that Lee Johnson is trying to move on Will Grigg and Danny Graham before the window shuts, so it appears that this is where the coach has identified where the squad needs improvement. With the club rumoured to be in talks for Ross Stewart it remains to be seen just what kind of forward that we end up bringing in, if any.